Nothing can prepare someone for this.
"You seem too happy," the hospital staff therapist told me. She was a skinny, short, wrinkly woman in khaki pants and a polo shirt. The kind of shrink that wears thin-rimmed glasses on the tip of her nose as an accessory. "You clearly don't realize the severity of your accident. You're never going to walk again … you know that?”
I had gone nine days without shedding one tear about my injury, which understandably had doctors and therapists on high alert.
"Yes, I understand," I answered, smiling. There is nothing funny about being paralyzed from the chest down, but I found this question comical considering it was the third or fourth time I had heard it.
"I don't think you do," she quipped. "I'm going to make a note that you see a psychologist as soon as you arrive in Atlanta."
If there were a rulebook of how to act when newly paralyzed, apparently, I was not following it.
"I don’t think I need a psychologist," I protested.
"I'm concerned by your lack of emotion in regards to the present situation. You haven't cried once," she volleyed.
"Lack of emotion?" I rebutted. "But I'm not a crier."
"You need to grieve what's happening," she continued, pausing. "And I'm afraid you're in denial."
"In denial?" I said, rolling my eyes, the only part of my body that still moved freely.
The truth was I hadn't had time to fully process the breaking of my neck and what that meant yet. Three of those nine days were spent in complete black out, and the other six days had been filled with pain pills, visitors, pretty flowers and mylar balloons.
"I'll tell you what. I'll make a note that I think a psychologist should see you and then let Shepherd's Center take it from there," she finally relented.
Even still, I didn't want to spend time seeing a psychologist to talk about feelings. I wanted to start rehabbing to see what parts of my body still could move.
I arrived at Shepherd's Center in Atlanta via private jet—a benefit awarded to me for being hurt on the job. Though just recently deemed a quadriplegic, I was lucky to have access to resources. I was even luckier to have the opportunity to work with leading therapists at one of the best spinal cord injury hospitals in the country.
"You can blow into the straw to change the channels," a weekend night nurse told me. Even before my rehab started, I was learning how to regain my independence.
And then the time came that I finally shed my first tear.
It had taken me two hours and three people to get ready the morning of my first Occupational Therapy appointment. After all that work, I was reluctant to get out of my wheelchair and sprawl onto the therapy mat. But I did. I was swung via manual hoyer lift and a body net from my borrowed power wheelchair to the large square mat. Then unhooked. Immediately, my heavy new Addidas shoes made both of my feet flop to the each side, like Charlie Chaplin. This bothered me. So I avoided looking at the uncontrollable lower half of my body and focused my attention on the ceiling tiles above.
Butterflies were painted upon every fifth ceiling tile.
"To start, I'd like to se how much movement we have to work with in your shoulders," my therapist said.
At the time, my neck, shoulders and biceps were the only muscles still firing. My triceps, wrists and fingers were limp, lifeless even. So even though I could flop my hand from my side to atop of my chest, once there it became stuck. I could not flop it back, and I'd have to ask someone to move it for me.
"Can you lift your arm?" She asked, politely.
I flopped it up, nearly wailing my chin.
"That's totally normal. How about we use these balloons? They'll help keep your arms straight so that we can see how strong your shoulders are without worry you'll hit yourself in the face."
In her hand, she held what looked like a clear plastic swimmie. But it wasn't your typical kid's swimmie. Once blown up, this plastic balloon was the length of my entire arm. And instead of preventing me from drowning, it was used to protect me from gravity.
"Sure," I said, bright eyed and excited. After fifteen years of being a competitive gymnast, I was comfortable with rehabbing my body. I was prepared for hard work. And I had been practiced in perseverance.
I watched her use a straw to blow each balloon, then studied the way she maneuvered my arm into each hole. It was finally time to see what I was dealing with, sans visitors and flowers and balloons and cards
"Okay, raise your arm straight up towards the ceiling," she coached. "Like this."
She grabbed my arm and moved it towards the ceiling, a perfect ninety-degree angle. Then placed it back by my side.
On the mat, I became flooding with feelings of claustrophobia.
"I'm ready when you are. You got this. Let's do it."
I took a deep breath.
"C'mon Jana. UP!" She encouraged.
I zeroed in on one pink butterfly on the ceiling, wings up and in flight.
"Are you ready?"
"YES! I'm f*cking trying, alright! I've been trying to lift my arm up this whole time," I finally exploded.
"I'm so sorry," my OT said, surprised by my outburst.
My throat tightened. My nose ran, until finally large salty tears began to slide down the side of my face and into my ears.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know you were trying," my OT said, softly.
"I know," I replied, wishing that I could just use my arms and hands to cover my face. Or perhaps wipe away one tear. People who don't cry certainly don't like to cry in other's presence.
"Do you want to take a break?" the therapist asked. The waterworks were beginning with her, too.
"No," I said proudly.
I had been OK with thinking I was never going to walk again. What I couldn’t imagine was not being able to use my arms, hands and fingers. How was I going to have any kind of quality of life without the use of my arms? Or fingers? I had seen people in wheelchairs before, but I had not paid enough attention to notice what their arms or hands were doing.
"It gets better right?" I asked.
Wiping away her own tears, the OT shrugged her shoulders.
I stared back up to the butterfly and thought, How am I ever going to live trapped inside this body?
Not even a psychologist can prepare someone for this.